Decriminalizing homosexuality

Commonwealth countries with anti-gay laws turn deaf ears

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs says the Harper government remains committed to convincing heads of state that homosexuality ought not to be criminal in Commonwealth countries.

“Canada will work aggressively to push this issue,” says a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs. “We will continue to work with Commonwealth and other countries to promote and protect the human rights of all citizens, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Canadian delegates made the argument to leaders from countries in which homosexuality is criminal most recently at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth, Australia, at the end of October.

“The Commonwealth, like every other international agency, has a variety of members, and there’s obviously been continuing tensions over a range of issues between older, more northern, and newer, more southern, members,” says Timothy Shaw, a retired professor who studies the Commonwealth.

While those tensions tend to flare up around development, environmental and human rights issues, Shaw says that in this case, some of the member states, particularly those in Africa, dug in their heels.

“The African members include bizarre regimes like that in Gambia and very conservative regimes that have seen eminent gay activists murdered, like in Uganda,” Shaw says. He also says that the influx of evangelical churches into Africa may need to share part of the blame.

Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, concurs with Shaw’s assessment on the influx of these churches.

“Certainly Uganda is the classic example of that in the last year or two,” Elliott says. American evangelical church groups have largely supported the anti-homosexuality bill before the Ugandan parliament.

But are there other tools Canada can use to encourage all Commonwealth countries to repeal their laws against homosexuality?

The government in the UK has suggested that Commonwealth countries with anti-gay laws on their books might see greater restrictions on foreign aid. But conditional aid can actually do more harm than good.

“One thing that’s important to consider is what do the [queer] activists in developing countries feel about this, because some of them have actually protested,” says University of Ottawa professor Stephen Brown.

“I know that some Malawian [activists] have – they said that it just leads to further vilification of [queer] individuals, and they are now being blamed for the fact that aid is being cut or redirected,” Brown says. “It reinforces the idea that homosexuality is a Western thing, and that Western countries want to impose it on African countries.”

Elliott concurs with Brown’s assessment.


“It can isolate and undermine domestic activists who are then seen as just the puppets of colonial masters and so on,” Elliott says. “Whether there’s any truth to that narrative or not, that is a narrative that resonates too often, and it just practically speaking makes it difficult to do.”

Brown emphasizes that tough measures against harsh criminalization may be useful, but that using threats against foreign aid is a “clumsy tool.”

“Part of what you need for foreign aid is predictability of flows and long-term relationships,” Brown says. “So this whole ‘You pass this law, we’re going to make this change; you repeal the law, we’re going to make this other change,’ is just not a good way to bring about development.”

Brown advocates instead for naming and shaming offending countries, but he says the key is working with local activists there to see what is helpful, and what is likely to make things worse.

“It is essential to have communication with local activists when choosing what kind of strategy would be effective to bring about change,” Brown says.

Elliott agrees, but with an added caveat: “Supporting local organizations, ideally with a certain amount of distance maintained between them and an out-of-country funder is important because you need to strengthen those voices domestically as they take very real risks in speaking out on these issues.”

Elliott also says targeting evangelical churches that operate missions in those countries may be a way Canadians can make a difference.

“That’s actually a place where we can take action quite directly, and I think we have a responsibility to take action and say we’re going to tackle one of the upstream sources of this hate and homophobia,” says Elliott. “We can try to shame those people here, and then we’re doing our part in our own backyard to try to help and show solidarity and undermine that hate-mongering but in a way that doesn’t expose people on the ground there to even more of a backlash, and actually can support them by withdrawing some of the fuel for the fire that the hate-mongers are feeding from here.”

As for more high-level engagement, work continues between now and the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, which is scheduled for Sri Lanka in 2013.

“As a member of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, Canada will be involved in evaluating options relating to the proposal for a commissioner for democracy, the rule of law and human rights,” says the Foreign Affairs spokesperson.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government did agree on the need for a Charter of the Commonwealth at the Perth meeting.

“A text to that effect will be agreed to following a process of national consultations, consideration by a task force of ministers, and a full meeting of foreign ministers in September 2012 in New York,” Foreign Affairs says.

Shaw feels that a series of interim meetings will lead to progress, thanks in part to a number of Commonwealth non-governmental groups that continue to monitor and pressure.

“Unlike Le Francophonie, the Commonwealth continues to have the majority of its members relatively democratic, whereas, obviously, Le Francophonie has relatively undemocratic members, like Cote D’Ivoire, which has been a fairly important member until recently,” Shaw says.

Overall, Shaw sees the potential for these reforms to move ahead, in large part because of the importance of democracies like India and South Africa within the Commonwealth framework.

“The crucial thing is that on these matters, the global south in the Commonwealth continues to play an important role along with the Commonwealth diasporas in Canada and the UK, in Australia and South Africa,” Shaw says.

“It would be nice if these things were more encouraged by Canada.”

Dale Smith is a freelance journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and author of The Unbroken Machine: Canada's Democracy in Action.

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